New York State’s Push for Cannabis Justice

Back in March, Connecticut’s Supreme Court, the state’s highest, ruled that those convicted of past cannabis possession misdemeanors can have the charges erased from their records because the state decriminalized the herb in 2011. The unanimous ruling came in the case of Nicholas Menditto, who will now have his 2009 possession conviction expunged from his record. Last week, reporter Jon Campbell wrote in New York’s Village Voice that activists in the Empire State are hoping for a similar outcome. New York was one of the first states to decriminalize, way back in ’77, and the cut-off point for an infraction rather than a misdemeanor is a full ounce (as opposed to a half-ounce under the Connecticut law). But New York pot arrests have ironically continued at the highest rate in the country—especially in the five boroughs, under the aggressive policing since the ’90s. The loophole that cops used? Cannabis in public view remains illegal—and suspects are basically forced into pulling out their stashes when stopped by cops and ordered to empty their pockets.

Gabriel Sayegh, director of the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Campbell that what happened in Connecticut needs to happen in New York: “With 40 years of drug-war excess, we not only need to reform the laws and end the war, but we need to account for the harms that this war has caused. This type of expungement, and clearing of records, is clearly a step [in the right] direction. And it should become more widespread… We really do need to account for the ways that these laws have harmed communities—specifically low-income communities and communities of color—over the last 40 years.”

Sayegh is pleased with the policy changes under NYC’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has instructed the NYPD not to make arrests for cannabis possession. And he’s optimistic about passage of the state’s long-stalled Equity and Fairness Act, which would overhaul marijuana enforcement. The bill has been stalled in Albany since 2011, with the current version introduced in March by Harlem assemblyman Robert Rodriguez and Lower Manhattan senator Daniel Squadron, both Democrats. This law would allow for old cannabis convictions to be “vacated.” (Unlike Connecticut, New York law doesn’t allow for outright erasure, so conviction records would remain on file with the courts—but would be effectively invisible for things like job applications.)

The bill would also eliminate a maddening provision of the state criminal code that treats the sharing of cannabis—basically, passing a joint—as the equivalent of drug dealing. And it would require any changes to the penal code to include a racial impact statement, examining the effects of new criminal laws on communities of color.

The Equity and Fairness Act has won the official endorsement of the New York City Council.

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